Copy editors no longer need to keep paper books on hand

This column appeared in the September-October newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society.

I visited a transferring co-worker to wish her well and to see what I could liberate from her cube after she left. The pickings were slim, sadly, except for an impressive Random House Webster’s Unabridged. I considered how it would look in my cube, but I left empty-handed. My cubicle remains devoid of reference books.

In my home office, I keep plenty of books in a small bookshelf next to my desk, but I rarely miss them when I’m at my in-house freelancing job. Even in my last newspaper job, the Webster’s New World College Dictionary stayed in pristine condition and the AP Stylebook was rarely touched.

I love books, the paper ones. I love reference books. I could spend an evening flipping through the dictionary. But as a practical matter, the Internet provides most of the reference materials I need. As a freelance editor, I rarely feel ill-equipped if I have an Internet connection and I can remember my passwords.

The “reference” tab of bookmarks on my browser is a mess. But other good people have taken the time to organize many of my favorite resources. A good listing of resources useful to journalists and independent copy editors is the Reference and Resources links on the ACES website. also has a useful Virtual Library of Resources link, and the Editing Tools section of the library at Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base is worth bookmarking.

As a newspaper copy editor, the “Webster’s New World” sufficed. Now, I can’t imagine relying on one dictionary. I routinely consult several when dealing with trickier questions. (It’s those tricky questions that remind us there is no such thing as “the Dictionary.”)

If my MacBook is at hand, my first stop is the “Dictionary” program on my dock. Apple hasn’t done enough marketing of this great free application, which contains the excellent New Oxford American Dictionary.

I also keep the American Heritage Dictionary nearby. I have the app on my iPod Touch, and I access it online through Wordnik, which also contains the Century Dictionary and others, along with the nicest dictionary interface and comments, samples, goodies and ever-changing cool ideas.

I subscribe to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged online, although the free version is great, too. And I regularly consult the Oxford English Dictionary, which costs real money for a subscription but often is available free from local and college libraries.

I have two other subscriptions. The Associated Press Stylebook is $20 a year and is worth every penny because it allows searching. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to multiple headings searching for something in the spiral edition. The other subscription is the Chicago Manual of Style, which already has the new 16th edition available online.

For APA and Chicago Style, I often visit Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Purdue’s OWL has guides that answer most questions about formatting for APA, Chicago and MLA styles.

There are many other style guides online. Not all of them are practical, but plenty of them are fun to flip through. My favorite is the Guardian and Observer style guide, which informs us that “boo-boo” is a mistake and “Boo Boo” lived in Jellystone Park with Yogi.

You can search a bunch of stylebooks at, a simple website put together by Mary Beth Protomastro, who founded the Copyediting newsletter. Grant Barrett, also of Copyediting along with the radio show “A Way With Words” and other endeavors, created a similar Google search that looks through word-related websites. I keep a copy of that search tool on my website (scroll down at This one-stop search tool scours the ACES site, Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English, Language Log, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips, and others. Barrett also has a tool that searches word-related Google Books.

With all these online sources, there remains no substitute for the opinions of colleagues when it comes to editing. Real people provide both practical knowledge and good sense for those times we threaten to become overzealous with our figurative red pens. But I don’t feel isolated. I have Twitter, and I have access to several editor-based e-mail lists and discussion boards, including a new Freelancers section at the ACES Forum link at

The more I think about it, the more likely I am to take a book or two to my cube, maybe even see if that dictionary is still on the shelf. Books make for a friendly atmosphere. But I’ll always have the tools I need as a freelance copyeditor on the Internet.

For links to some of the sites, pay and free, that I mentioned above, visit my website at and click on the “Editing resources” link. To access the other compilations I mentioned, visit:


ACES Forums:


KOK Edit:

What are your go-to online reference sources? Let me know in the comments.


14 thoughts on “Copy editors no longer need to keep paper books on hand

  1. I feel the same way about reference books (on paper). Because of the nature of my work, I’ve often had to move from country to country over the years, and big, thick reference books are expensive to lug around (and tend to bring on backaches and pains as well). So now I try to stick with ebooks and CDs and online resources as much as possible. It’s simplified my life.

    Another dictionary site I’ve found helpful is, which allows you to search in up to 1,000 dictionaries simultaneously.

    By the way, the reference link above on ACES isn’t working at the moment. I had it bookmarked as well, and a few days ago found it giving a 404 error–missing page. When I saw your article, I thought it might be up and running again, but it doesn’t seem to be.

    Thanks for the helpful tips.

  2. I thought I’d never give up my hardbound copy of Rodale’s The Synonym Finder. While I’ve used it once or twice in the last year, I visit constantly. Sometimes I keep a browser tab open at this site all day.

  3. A great list, Mark (thanks for adding Copyediting to it, too). I’ve asked for a Kindle — with WiFi — for Christmas. Any resource I can get as an e-book or I can get online (for free or for a fee) will be accessible on one, easy-to-carry device. I love my paper books. But the ease of researching a question with one device, even when my books are right beside me, is too good to pass up!

  4. Promise you won’t scoff? I actually use on a somewhat regular basis to check slangy words and phrases.

    And in addition to consulting many of the sources you cite, I keep a PDF of my co.’s style guide on my desktop.

    My dictionary and style books mostly just make a nice pedestal for my plant.

    • Scoff? Never. Well, rarely.

      I avoid just because I find that anything is street slang for a body part. Have you seen the Facebook meme in which you search for your name and write down the definition?*

      But, I don’t deal much with slang expressions these days. I can see where it can be pretty valuable, just as Wikipedia can be a great resource for providing direction.

      * Sherry \sh(er)-ry\ is pronounced SHARE-ee. The name is of English origin. Variation of the French “chérie” meaning “beloved”. Women with this name are often described as kind, intelligent, mysterious, elegant and sexy. Usually of the most intriguing and beautiful people in the world.

      • Yes – Wiki, too, as a resource (starting point only). The one with “pedia” at the end, not “Leaks.”

        Love that definition of “Sherry.” Finally an FB meme that’s useful. And accurate. 🙂

  5. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction – am innately lazy about online stuff, just because it requires so much initial setting up, registering, downloading and whatnot – that I just preferred to pk up a book off my shelf – but dictionaries can’t be updated as quickly as websites can and there are so many more options on-line. So, as a reluctant and timid user of e-resources I am most grateful for you tips. Lubaina India

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